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Home renters can’t get evicted in Florida, but small businesses can

Local businesses shut down by coronavirus wonder how long they’ll be able to keep paying their rent as money dries up.
Brian Signore, owner of Foolish Pride Tattoo Company, poses for a portrait outside the parlor on Wednesday, April 8, 2020 in Clearwater.
Brian Signore, owner of Foolish Pride Tattoo Company, poses for a portrait outside the parlor on Wednesday, April 8, 2020 in Clearwater. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Apr. 8, 2020
Updated Apr. 8, 2020

It was the height of spring break in mid-March, when viral photos of people partying at Clearwater Beach were splayed across the internet. Crowds of customers were still streaming in to Foolish Pride Tattoo Co.'s Clearwater location — 10 minutes from the beach — looking for fresh ink.

But the employees started worrying about potential spread of coronavirus, in a business centered around close human contact with only a needle in between.

So owner Brian Signore gathered the staff for a vote. They decided that even though the government hadn’t yet ordered businesses like theirs to close (that would happen about a week later), they would shutter the shop.

“It was definitely a tough decision," Signore said. "But we had to make the more responsible choice.”

Now, with no income from either the Clearwater or St. Petersburg locations of Foolish Pride, Signore is worried about another looming threat: his businesses’ rent.

That’s because Florida’s statewide moratorium on evictions doesn’t include businesses. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order, issued April 2, states that he is suspending the law for evictions “solely as it relates to non-payment of rent by residential tenants due to the COVID-19 emergency.” The suspension lasts for 45 days.

Other states, including Kansas, Wisconsin, New York, Oregon and Rhode Island, have made the suspension of evictions universal to both residential and commercial properties.

In response to a question about why DeSantis didn’t include commercial properties in his moratorium, Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokeswoman for the governor, said he “firmly believes families deserve security.”

She added that all properties, including businesses, are protected from foreclosure during the 45-day period of the order, and “the governor ... will continue to evaluate whether additional protections are needed.”

But state Rep. Jennifer Webb, D-Gulfport, said she had a phone call with the governor’s staff about this topic, and asked if DeSantis would expand his executive order. The staff told her they were waiting to see what the federal relief package would include. That was three weeks ago.

She said that commercial landlords in need of money should seek outside relief from emergency programs rather than squeeze it out of tenants whose businesses are shut down.

“Nobody should be putting pressure down, they should be ... realizing everyone is doing the best they can,” Webb said.

Signore said he has money saved to cover rent in the immediate future, but wonders how long the pandemic will keep his shops closed — and once they reopen, whether people will have any disposable income to spend.

He said that while a freeze on business evictions certainly wouldn't dissipate his fears — the accumulated rent would still be due eventually — it would offer at least a small, temporary reprieve.

“At least I’d know I have a little time, that my s--- isn’t going to get thrown out on the street,” Signore said. “Any glimmer of hope would be awesome.”

Lisa Brennan, who owns Tangelo’s Grille near Gulfport’s waterfront, has a different take. She, too, is worried about future rent payments. But she said the sudden, unforeseen worries of having to close her restaurant, which was bustling with customers just a few weeks ago, probably wouldn’t be helped much by a freeze on commercial evictions.

“It’s stressful no matter what,” she said. She emphasized that these springs months are typically her business’s peak, when the weather is nice and local families are all in town.

Brennan worries about the employees she can no longer pay, and misses the regular families she’s seen grow up over the years. She has run the restaurant, along with her husband, since 1986.

"We're the backbone of this area, local businesses are, so it's really important to try to support us."

Beyond Florida’s lack of eviction protection for businesses, other programs to help owners stay afloat have not gotten fully off the ground.

Both Signore and Brennan said they’ve applied for emergency small business loans. They haven’t heard about their status yet, but with a crush of businesses competing for the money, there’s no guarantee that they’ll receive checks.

And when it comes to filing for unemployment, both expressed little hope of making it through a process that has had such bad technical problems it’s resorted to paper applications, with a help line that hangs up on people after they’ve been on hold for hours.

Signore said he’s been keeping track of how many times he’s called. As of Monday afternoon, his tally was at 283.

Brennan applied but received an email requesting more information. She hasn't been able to get through to provide it.

"You can't login, you can't call ... it's awful," she said.

The city of St. Petersburg has started a small business grant program, but to qualify, the business must be located in St. Petersburg city limits and must be at least 50 percent owned by city residents. Neither Signore nor Brennan fit the bill.

Across the bay in Hillsborough, local businesses could be in a better position because the county issued its own local suspension on evictions, one that doesn’t differentiate between residential and commercial properties. It’s currently set to expire April 20.

On Monday, Hillsborough’s emergency policy group held a meeting and decided to seek clarity from the state on whether DeSantis would also suspend business evictions. County commissioner Sandy Murman said that circuit judges are planning a conference call to discuss this issue.

“We need to communicate with the governor’s office to see if we can get that clarified and figured out,” she said in a phone interview after the meeting. “I definitely think (businesses) should be included. We don’t want small businesses being forced out.”

One person awaiting the verdict is Kristy Collins, who owns the Can You Escape? escape room in Tampa, in which customers must solve puzzles to “escape” the site of the game. She also owns an adjacent axe-throwing business. She and her husband shut down the businesses in early March, recognizing that keeping groups of people in small rooms wasn’t safe.

“We’re just trying to make plans,” she said. “Some clarity from (government officials) would help us understand ... how to pay what we need to pay and how to survive this.”

Collins said she's heard of local landlords charging late fees on commercial rent, which she called "opportunistic."

“We are going to have to find ways to work together,” she said. “We’re all going to have to give a little and it’s painful. But we’re all going to have to agree it’s for the greater good.”

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